“unique” can be regional

A funny observation.

At this point, I’ve been in 29 states, on 75 campuses, with dozens and dozens of college ministers & ministries, and in dozens and dozens of churches. Northeast, West Coast, Midwest, Deep South, South, East Coast, and some spots in between all that. My Pathfinder, meanwhile, has seen over 16,600 miles on this trip.

One little truth this “broad view” helps me realize also makes me laugh at myself. “Unique,” this trip teaches me, can be regional.

Before this trip, I would occasionally comment about how certain things I’d seen in Christendom were soooo unique. I might mention the unique aspects of ministries, teachers, “one-of-a-kind” churches, etc. I might note that some ministry was probably the biggest of its kind, or that God was working on a particular campus “like nowhere else,” or that a single campus was uniquely fun or uniquely “dark” or uniquely secular or uniquely spirited.

In other words, I assumed that rarity within my own experience could be generalized to the whole of Christendom.

Meanwhile, in a number of interviews, I’ve heard similar comments from others. “We’re probably the only school in the nation like that.” “This is probably the most committed group anywhere.” “They are probably the biggest ministry of their kind.” “Our church services connect with college students in really unique ways.” Stuff like that. It’s not bragging, not even exaggerating (purposely). Lots of us talk like that, right? Because based on our experience, the thing we’re talking about really is rare.

Yes, there are truly rare ministries, teachers, campuses, and churches out there. (I wrote about one here, in fact.)

But some are only relatively rare. Or, in some cases, simply regionally rare.

I think most of us naturally think only within our own “regions”:

  • Geographical regions, for sure
  • Denominations are a kind of “region”
  • So are “Theological lineages” – connected to authors we like, movements we follow, etc.
  • And our networks (the buddies and colleagues we regularly connect with)
  • Plus our own unique “experience regions,” made up of everything we’ve personally encountered so far

And often we (including Benson) overgeneralize, assuming that because something is “1 in a hundred” that it must also be “1 in a thousand.” Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not.

By crossing “regional lines” (of all sorts) on this trip, I’ve discovered surprising similarities between ministries, schools, and churches. Even for those ministries or settings that actually are “groundbreaking,” that peculiarity can be short-lived, as others learn from their pioneering and add the same elements to their own settings.

For example…

Some “extremely innovative” churches I’ve seen closely resemble each other (on the surface, at least). For instance, I remember being a little under-whelmed when I first attended a Willow Creek church service. Not because it wasn’t creative and “themed” and “done with excellence” (it was), but because lots of churches already have – in some way or another – been affected by their methods, so I’m kind of used to it.

One campus can remind me suspiciously of another, too – despite the assumption by students that “there’s no place like [insert unique college here].” I wrote last week about how Cal Poly reminded me of my own alma mater, Texas A&M, which surprised me – though in a trip last year, Auburn University kind of did, too.

Or a college ministry I check out next week might look a whole lot like 4 others I encountered last month, even if there is no discernible connection between all those ministries.

Even whole denominations have some similar works going on. And I’ve found quite a few parachurch collegiate ministries out there that I didn’t know about, even though they’re “doing college ministry” like the rest of us.

But this notice of “similarity” is not a critique. It’s simply a fact I’m observing on this trip: The adjective “Unique” is often only regionally accurate. It’s a pretty interesting observation, at least for me, and it makes me wonder what else might not be as unique as I thought it was!

BUT, lest this “rampant similarity” still be disillusioning for all you pioneering & creative types, there are things we can learn and apply from the fact. More on those in the next post. (Here’s that next post.)

Written from Vintage Faith Church, Santa Cruz

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  1. Pingback: don’t hold your breadth « Exploring College Ministry (daily notes on our mission field)

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